Cardinals Triathlon hits the reset button
For the first time since their inaugural season, North Central triathlon did not enter this year as defending national champions. Last year was certainly not a failure, with then-freshman Hailey Poe winning the individual national championship and the team still finishing third, but being knocked off their perch certainly provided extra motivation for this time around.
“I think there’s definitely a little bit of a legacy that our program had with winning so many times in a row, but also I think that our loss last year really put things in perspective and helped us flip a new chapter in the program and come together and get some great new faces to contribute to our scoring and our team,” said sophomore Hailey Poe, who began the year as the reigning individual national champion. “This year we’ve definitely restarted a little bit and refreshed to make it a really cool phase under our new coach, Averi Lewis, so that’s been awesome as well.”
Lewis is just the second coach in program history, and quickly went from masters’ student looking for work to leading one of the premier Division III triathlon programs. Initially looking for collegiate swimming coaching opportunities, North Central presented the unique case of looking to hire the same coach for both sports. Lewis said the campus felt like home from the moment she arrived for her interview, particularly due to her interactions with members of the team.
“I actually got to sit and lunch with some of the girls on the team on my interview day, and that was the most special part of the day,” said Lewis. “All of my other interviews I felt like I really had to be ‘on’ and performing but when I got to sit there with the girls and just hear about they’re experiences so far on the team and what they really loved about triathlon and how it had brought them here to North Central. I just felt so at ease and felt we were having a conversation and I could start to visualize how I would work with these athletes and how I would coach them. I didn’t know anything at that point yet about their competitive abilities, but it just felt like a fit and I found myself as I was leaving North Central just still thinking about those girls and wanting to be able to continue to work with them and give them the things that they were looking for in the continued future of this program.”
“You can tell every day when we’re in practice she just loves the sport so much,” Poe said of Lewis. “She really wants to be involved in it, she gets into every practice with us, she’s biking with us, she’s really awesome in that regard in that she gets involved with the team and really lead us while doing the workouts with us. But then she also is very strategic in the workouts and explains to us why everything’s important in what we’re doing for training. So that has been awesome to have her as this really young leader that we can relate with, but she also is this figure of authority on our team that’s so awesome and so passionate.
“I think that’s something that Averi and Grace were really open to is that they appreciated our experience and what we’ve had from past seasons and that we had to understand that Averi may not have had the same techniques or coaching style that our previous coaches had, that they’re different people and we had to accept that and learn and be dynamic with one another to create the best possible scenario that we could,” said senior Natalie Grolmes, the team’s only upperclassman.
Adjusting to new coaches and setting new goals
Under the new leadership of a young coach, the young team got to work. There were some growing pains, but such an adjustment was certainly eased by the high standards the athletes hold themselves to and their determination to reclaim their crown.
“I definitely think that it was a bit of a transition for me as well since I still consider myself pretty new to triathlon,” said Grolmes, a former tennis player in just her third year of triathlon. “This season I just tried to lend as much insight as I could not only to the girls but I also met with the coaches a few times and gave them some feedback and some pointers on what we’ve done in past seasons, or potential suggestions on how we could improve, or I always tried to communicate if some of the girls didn’t always feel comfortable having conversations with the coaches I would step up in that manner and communicate between coaches and my teammates.”
“When I set foot in the door here it was just so evident that the women were so hungry to take back that title,” Lewis said. “Even though nationals was still three months away, everybody was already thinking about it. Something I told them a lot throughout the season that I thought everyone really embodied was you can’t just want it on race day. You have to want it every single day, even at six o’clock in the morning when you don’t want to be here in the pool, you’d rather be in bed. That’s really what it comes down to is wanting it and being able to put in the work to get to that ultimate goal. I also think the women just had such a great mindset. As much as they wanted to win, they really did believe in the process and believe in each other.”
“After being the defending national champion from last year and coming into this season, I really wanted to make sure my team was on board for winning the national championship this year,” said Poe of her outlook on this season. “So that was definitely my biggest goal this year to make sure that we have a strong group that was focused on winning then national championship together. So I think just to put the individual and team goals together this year was the most important thing for me so that’s what I was really striving to do this year.”
Cardinals dominate the regular season on their way back to Nationals
Beginning their season at the Lake County Challenge Sprint, Poe won the women’s division while three other Cardinals, Bethany Smeed, Scarlett Schuth and, Charlotte Kumler, finished in the top six. They repeated those same finishes at the Beaver County Tri-Cup the following week, and then won the Millikin Invitational, with Poe making it three individual victories out of three. At regionals, it was another win for Poe, a total of three top-five finishes, and another trip booked to nationals. Despite all that success, the final race in Phoenix was the only one by which the team would judge the season.
“The day before the race, before nationals, might have been the proudest I’ve been this season,” said Lewis. “We got all the girls together in one of our hotel rooms, we were just having a special little pre-race meeting that we like to have before all of our big races where we do some visualization as a group and we just share some thoughts and some pre-race pep talks. Just to hear some of the girls share what they were thinking and feeling before the race was really special. One thing that really stuck with me is Abby [Anderson] said our team culture is so amazing that I would rather have this team culture and lose tomorrow than to win and not love, support and challenge each other the way that we do. These girls really knew what matters, big picture.”
Champions once again
If the setting of a national championship race or the pressure to climb back to the top put any burden on the Cardinals, they certainly did not show it. Poe made it an undefeated season in which she led wire-to-wire in every race, improving her time by over a minute from last year and defending her national title. Schuth and Smeed both finished in the top five, with Kumler finishing seventh to round out the Cardinals scorers and secure a 14-point victory over Trine University.
“I love going out and leading from the gun, that’s definitely my strategy going into every race,” Poe said. “So at nationals this year when I came out of the water first I knew I just had to keep going and extending my lead as much as possible. So once I was on the bike, after the first lap I would say, I knew that as long as I kept going at what I was doing I’d be able to win. My goal was to keep pushing boundaries and to see how much I could win by. I wouldn’t say I was ever really comfortable with my lead, I was still trying to extend it the whole time and seeing what I could do and especially trying to improve on my time from last year.”
“I know that it was really upsetting for us returners that we didn’t win nationals, obviously, but I think that just made us so hungry for this season and I know we’re gonna be super hungry next season so I’m so excited to see what these ladies are gonna do,” Grolmes said. “I just know that this season we’ve all put in so much hard work and that I definitely saw this coming, I was really hopeful that it would happen. I knew that with the strength of our team and how much drive that we all have that it was definitely possible.”
Due to the 2020 national championships being canceled during the pandemic, none of the current members of the Cardinal triathlon team were a part of the last team national championship in 2019. So while it may be a return to glory for the program, even for the defending national champion it was a new height of achievement.
“Winning a team national championship is so much more fulfilling to me because I’m just someone who loves that team aspect of sport,” said Poe. “So being able to finish and then wait for my teammates to come through the finish line was the most nerve-wracking part for me. Honestly, I get more nervous for other people during races than I do for myself. So once I finished my race I remember just standing there and talking to everybody who was on the side and being like ‘okay, where’s Scarlett, where’s Bethany, where’s Charlotte, I need to know,’ it was just driving me crazy. So just being able to be there at the finish line and seeing everybody come in together and celebrate with them is beyond amazing.”
“Since switching sports and switching to triathlon it’s honestly been life changing for me and it’s just really showed me how much determination and grit that I have for myself and that determination that I know I can have in the future and within the sport in general,” Grolmes said. “It’s something I really want to continue in my career, in triathlon and out of triathlon as well.”
“Being a collegiate coach, especially at the Division III level, is such a dynamic position,” Lewis said of her first year in charge. “There’s so many things involved from being a bus driver to sometimes cooking meals for the athletes, it’s just been such an adventure but the biggest thing for me has been the confidence I have with how the ladies performed all season and especially this past weekend showed me that I have what it takes to coach collegiate athletes and be successful in triathlon and just to believe in myself a little bit more and not be afraid to try new things or whatever crazy ideas I come up with, my athletes always seem to respond really well to them. It’s just been an amazing learning and growth experience so far.”